Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nay-Sayin' the Nay-Sayers

This week I've been participating in a 1-2-1 initiative training session in my district. All of our freshmen are getting their own laptops, and its my job incorporate them into my lessons effectively. I'm not a huge fan of technology for technology's sake, but some of the tools we've looked at could add some significance to my lessons. It'll be interesting to play around with it throughout the year. I'm sure I'll post an update in the future.
Anyway, this morning we got into a discussion on project-based learning versus the 'old style' of education. The obvious question of 'Which is better?' was posed, and everyone agreed that the PBL style would be much more effective. When our presenter, Tom Gaffey from Philadelphia School of the Future, asked how many of us have tried it, less people raised their hands. When he asked why we haven't, what our roadblocks were, this is where the discussion got started. Many of us began talking about pros and cons to planning and executing these lessons, and the end product was very positive.
Now, I'm in a unique situation in that I've taught the exact same courses for the past six years. I've tried to use this to my advantage. Rather than teaching the same thing every year, I've tried to add or modify a PBL unit to the course every time I go through it. 
Whenever I take part in these discussions, I often get the feeling that teachers really do want what's best for their students, and these presentations motivate them to put the proper pieces in place. But once the show is over and the presenter is gone, temptation to resume the status quo emerges. It took me many years to overcome this feeling, and it still lurks at time. I understand that the time factor in planning is tough, but that is why you start small. Lack of motivation among students is present in every math class (it's what we do!), but PBL lessons have a 74% chance of generating more interest among students (I made that up, but they will help!). State exams and standards aren't going anywhere, if anything their gaining momentum, but we need to work with them not for them. This is the excuse that bothers me the most, and I know there are people that will disagree here.
The example we looked at today was teaching slope through building a set of stairs. Mr. Gaffey explained how he had his students find someone in the community that needed a set of stairs built and his students did the work for them. He taught them everything they needed to know to construct them correctly and tied the notion of slope into his explanation (I immediately thought of Dan Meyer's competition idea). To me, this is an awesome idea! He even admitted that his students did no better on the state tests than others. At this point, the conversation got interesting. I could tell some in the room began questioning the significance of the lesson. After all, if it doesn't raise scores, but takes more time, what's the point? I've got stuff to cover, we've got to push through the content. On the contrary, Mr. Gaffey made the point that his students gained a valuable learning experience in problem solving and construction among other things. He took it from concrete to abstract and had the students attention the entire time. So, yeah, it took longer, but the benefits far outweigh that. I would love to have an entire course (or all courses) structured in this way. If I get through the entire curriculum, GREAT! If I don't, who cares? If my students learn the majority of a curriculum really well along with other topics, then whatever I miss can be made up later. If my students have the opportunity to get a ridiculously awesome learning experience, I'm going to do anything I can to make that happen. It's not easy, but then again, if it was everyone would be a teacher, right?
I wish I could find more educators that shared this mindset and had a better opportunity to collaborate for this type of planning. I believe great things can happen if education is done right. There are many things that work for our students, but we need to ask ourselves if what we are doing is whats best for them.